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By Alex Johnson

China warned of a "head-on collision" Wednesday unless North Korea stops launching banned missiles and the United States and South Korea halt their joint military exercises.

"The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, with neither side willing to give way," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Beijing at his annual news conference for the opening of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

"The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?" Wang said. "Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains."

The cautionary remarks follow a significant rise in tensions after North Korea fired four banned ballistic missiles into Japanese waters on Monday. The North Korean government has threatened to conduct more missile tests in response to the annual two-month exercises between the United States and South Korea, which are under way through April.

Wang proposed that the United States and South Korea suspend the exercises in exchange for North Korea's suspension of missile launches. The pause, he said, would give all sides breathing room to "bring the parties back to the negotiating table" on the way to "denuclearizing the [Korean] peninsula."

"We have to walk on both legs, which means not just implementing sanctions but also restarting talks," he said.

The timing of Wang's comments is notable, coming just a day after the United States confirmed that it has begun shipping components of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system to South Korea.

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a ballistic rocket launching drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the KPA on the spot
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un supervised a ballistic rocket launching drill on the spot in this undated photo released in Pyongyang, North Korea on Mar. 7, 2017.KCNA / Reuters

While the United States insists that the system, known as THAAD, is aimed solely at defending South Korea from North Korean missiles, China has denounced it as a "clear, present and substantive threat to China's security interests."

Wang called THAAD the biggest issue affecting China-[South Korean] relations at the moment," saying, "Clearly deploying THAAD is a wrong choice. ...

"To continue my railway metaphor, China will continue to be a switchman," he said. "We will switch the issue back onto the track of seeking a negotiated settlement."